Monday, February 18, 2013

Theatre is more than words

I think in words. I create in words. I love words, and so do a lot of the people in my life. We belong to book clubs, we play Taboo and Words with Friends, and we talk and talk and talk. We are readers and writers, with shelves and apps for dictionaries and other references. We share our words and newly-found vocabulary games with one other. When you spend a lot of time with people like you, it's inevitable to fall into the misbelief that the whole world operates this way. And that there is no better way to experience and explain the world.

Theatre, however, lives only partially in the world of words, and I was introduced to this other side at the first Tech Rehearsal for The Book Club Play. In addition to the now-familiar actors, director and stage manager, who had moved down into the Mainstage for final rehearsals, there were now a dozen folks led by the Technical Directors, casting their magic on this show. Words are not the medium of these folks. They create in light, colors and shadows. They see sounds. They count beats and feel the world musically. As the actors spoke their lines on stage, the tech crew were like honey bees, buzzing to one another, moving here and there, creating a whole new level of experience to this play. Stage lights went on and off, costume pieces were buttoned and shed, and props were moved to and fro. The action of the play was almost excruciatingly slow, stopping and starting as tech required, but there was so much synergy surrounding it all.

The lighting director and the sound director sat at a long table propped up over the center seats.  The costume designer and props head circled the stage, adjusting as needed. Requests were spoken into headsets and received in the lightbooth above. Assistants flitted in and out. The crew had been at this work for several hours before I arrived. The directors' table held laptops, scripts, Red Bulls, bags of chips and stryrofoam cups. This tech rehearsal would run from 11am to 11pm, with a break for dinner. The show goes up for Preview in 2 days!

Some of what I saw I expected. The fine-tuning of the action on the real set in real time. The masking-taped oval on the rehearsal room floor is actually an 8" step off the wooden living room floor of the set. Quick exits are taking a little bit longer. Handling props reveal some new needs. An actor realizes he doesn't have time to open the Pepto-Bismal bottle in his 5-seconds offstage, so will need to grab an opened bottle from props. Two bottles go on the prop list, one closed and one opened. I also watch the handling of the pundits, who each have a special location and spotlight for their monologues. As the actor moves to it, they put on the appropriate costume accessories in the dark, and today the lighting cues are nailed down. The lighting director asks, "what's your last movement when getting ready?" The actor responds, "Oh, I put my glasses on. I'll put on my glasses last." Done. The scene is practiced, it works, and it will now be done exactly the same way every time.

However, I am witnessing more than what I expected, because the sound and lights folks have been imagining new stuff for this play. The script does not have any notations about special effects or music, but GEVA is all about creating and shaping a production to its fullest potential. An original score has been written to enhance the mood of each scene, complementing each book club title. There's Moby Dick, Age of Innocence, and Twilight, uniquely captured and introduced to us instrumentally. And, as I said, these guys think in sounds and lights. Numerous unique special effects are being created, including a few totally on the fly that will require extra work over dinner and overnight to perfect. They add to the comedy, to the madcap nature of the plot, and to the arc of the play. I'm impressed at one point that a colored spot, a taped sound from an amusement park, and a gesture by an actress can convey much, much more than words.  How do these guys think of these things?? Genius.

The set itself has been designed with just as much intention. Early on, the senior set designer and the director talked over the desired feel for the play. It's not simply that it's a contemporary piece with moderately affluent characters. The set also needed to reflect the sense of being watched and controlled. Sean Daniels, the director, said one question that was particularly pertinent was "to door or not to door?" The set would be more realistic with doors and walls of a room, but the reality tv aspects of being in a documentary also had to be communicated. A decision was made to not have the documentary maker's cameras physically present, and this led to the idea that the audience could surround the set instead. Tickets are being sold for the stage right and stage left seats. The set designer decided to put the living room furniture up on an oval platform, which implies both the limits of the room and the sense of the book club as an island. The colors of the room are warm, while the lines are crisp and modern, creating a representation of Ana's style and intentionality. The set also needed to take into consideration the fact that the 6 actors move and sit and circle through this space, with all of them onstage for practically the whole show. This translated into a need for floor space, furniture one can dive over, pieces like floor pillows which can be moved out of the way easily, and also the creation of a sense of closeness as well as tightness for the book club.

I ended my Tech Day with a tour through the basement and catwalks of GEVA, marveling again at the wide variety of people and skills used to put on a professional theatre production. People who do not think only in words, but people who see the world in a multitude of creative ways. All for the purpose of having people like me sit in the audience and immerse myself in their worlds of drama and stage production, benefitting from the ways that theatre can transport me outside of myself.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, it's a pretty great world, the world of theatre. After seeing so much theatre w/Rich - and building our own community theatre for 7 years - I still to this day walk into a theatre and my eye immediately goes to the ceiling and the stage floor, and my brain starts guessing, "those lighting instruments are positioned there because something important is going to happen on stage right, etc" and "those tracks are built into the stage floor because a cart, car, bed etc. is going to move downstage". You'll start doing it too. : )